A Better Alternative to Light Rail on the Mall

The primary arguments for putting light rail on the mall are that it is has been planned for a long time, is needed to increase capacity, provides access to Portland State and enables a connection to a future light rail corridor to Milwaukie.

All of these arguments are flawed. Unlike the OHSU Tram project, there is still time to change it before major costs have been incurred.

Just because light rail on the mall has been in the downtown plan since the 1970s does not mean it is still a good idea. No one at that time would have guessed that light rail would be carrying 95,000 passengers a day, almost a third of all TriMet’s passengers. If it weren’t for light rail, the Banfield and Sunset freeways would both need another lane each way to handle peak-hour traffic. Light rail has become a significant high-capacity regional system. It has the latent capacity of another two freeway lanes if it is not saddled with more slow downtown operations.

Although it is slow, especially for those traveling through downtown, the existing downtown alignment probably has the capacity for another 20 years of growth if all 30 trains an hour (the maximum capacity of the Steel Bridge and the Banfield segment) can operate through to the westside. North/south light rail will need another corridor.

An eastside north/south route, possibly in the Water Avenue corridor, should be considered. Light rail must do a better job of attracting non-downtown trips if it is to have a significant impact on reducing freeway congestion. This more direct route for the Yellow Line would be faster and attract more passengers than if it is diverted downtown over the Steel Bridge and back again over a new bridge south of downtown. It also would be less costly to build and operate.

Given the serious traffic congestion in the McLoughlin Blvd/I-5 corridor, this faster Yellow Line alignment is needed as soon as possible, along with an extension north to Hayden Island. In the future, the line should be extended north to Clark County and south to Oregon City, establishing a north-south and east-west high-capacity rail system as an effective alternative to freeway commuting.

Transfers between north/south and east/west trains would not be a significant deterrent to downtown-bound commuters if frequent service, a quality transfer environment and sufficient capacity were provided. Rail systems throughout the world require many passengers to transfer to reach their destinations. As an example, in Toronto, passengers on the heavily used Bloor-Danforth cross-town line must transfer to the Younge-University-Spadina Lines to go to or from downtown.

To avoid traffic snarls and slow running through the Rose Quarter area, the Yellow Line could be elevated with a station over the existing east/west tracks. Transferring passengers could be provided safe indoor escalator access between train platforms. A similar covered station would also be needed at the Hawthorne Bridge ramps in order to provide direct connections to all of the Hawthorne Bridge bus routes and a future streetcar line.

Improved bus service on the transit mall would provide better circulator service than would light rail. Buses currently provide good access during weekday business hours but not evenings and weekends. During those times, bus service is sporadic and infrequent. Few people, except those waiting for these buses, have any reason to be there. The mall lacks residential development and has a concentration of sterile institutional buildings that close at the end of the business day. Businesses like restaurants and retail shops, which attract clientele, do not stay open because of the lack of customer access.

Denver has a downtown bus-only transit mall serving its retail core. It is a dynamic people-friendly place, day and night, weekdays and weekends. Its street furniture is comfortable and useful, inviting friendly social interaction. The free bus service is frequent (every two to five minutes). Its electric hybrid buses have low floors and four wide doors, allowing quick boarding and deboarding.

Here in Portland, we could add electric shuttle buses similar to Denver’s on the mall from PSU past Union Station all the way to the Pearl District. Shuttle buses are better than trains for transporting people within the downtown area because they can run more frequently, are compatible with the existing buses and can make more stops closer to people’s destinations. They would compliment the service now provided by the cross-town light rail lines, downtown bus routes and the Portland Streetcar. They could be quiet, pollution-free electric trolley buses maintained, serviced and stored beneath I-405 adjacent to the Portland Trolley facilities.

In the future, the overhead power system could be extended up Marquam Hill, replacing the noisy diesel bus service to OHSU with trolley buses. If buses on other routes were equipped with diesel-electric hybrid power and retractable trolley poles, the overhead wires could also provide them with power, allowing them to turn off their engines while operating on the mall.

It is still not too late. Besides the advantages described above, the mall project would be far less costly and disruptive to construct, cost less to operate and would attract more ridership than the current proposal.


42 responses to “A Better Alternative to Light Rail on the Mall”

  1. I really like the idea of expanding the “downtown” concept to something more inclusive, like “city center”.

    With a City Center focus, transport can be added to the CEID and other important employment/living centers.

    I don’t think we can keep focusing on “downtown” because its a relatively small area and it seems as if the trend is for employment to spread to other areas, especially with the implementation of mixed use planning.

    This scenario is at least taking the right direction. Why not plan for a high density light industrial/residential/commercial area in the CEID? It makes sense…because not everyone works as a business person.

    And add transport accordingly, as Jim suggests. Why keep crossing the river with every line? I agree we need at least one more crossing, but why not create a transport node in the CEID. In the future we could add more streetcars, hi speed rail and possibly cover I5… Creating a new “downtown” across the river that focuses on something besides business employment.

    Just a thought…

  2. Interesting thoughts, nathan. Just one question from an uninformed reader: what does “CEID” stand for?

  3. Chris,
    The Blue, Red and Green Lines would all go as far west as the Beaverton Transit Center. High demand will require more trains between BTC and Willow Creek so either the Red or Green Line could provide that service.

    Peter W.
    CEID stands for The Central Eastside Industrial District

  4. Jim,
    MAX down the eastside makes sense when the freeway is removed and the UPRR line is put underground, as per Riverfront for People. Until then, I think the destination data still beg for a N/S line through the center of the Central City.
    I’m looking forward to hopping a Yellow/Green or Shuttle MAX between PSU and Union Station.

  5. Lenny Anderson: MAX down the eastside makes sense when the freeway is removed. . .
    JK: Please explain where the 150,000, or so, vehicles per day that use that freeway will go instead? And how much accomidating (or ignoring) them will cost?


  6. I’d agree… with a lot of this.

    Downtown needs to cease to be the primary focus. The South East, especially the industrial side needs to have some good and timely transit, and even into some of these smaller “towns” within Portland should be serviced by something similar to the streetcar.

    I also like the idea of trolley busses, but dislike busses as regardless of how they are run, they attract less than desireable elements even if it is just a minority. You have streetcar, rail transit you have middle class shoppers and others of some financial mobility. Thus you have a market and an option to actually develop near the transit.

  7. JK –

    There have been several proposals for removing and/or relocation I-5 on the eastside. These have included upgrading I-405 into a “new” I-5 with the addition of lanes, and new surface and underground or “trench” routes on the eastside.

    As to whether or not any of these proposals will gain any support or traction, and what they would cost, that remains to be seen.

    – Bob R.

  8. Running the Yellow line all the way to Milwaukie via MLK and Grand instead of via downtown makes for a sensible N/S route. Further, it can answer the same needs of the proposed streetcar route on those streets.

    The close in SE industrial area as a needed extension of the core downtown commercial area is obvious with the major obstacle of making it as accessible as downtown. (I think this area will be the next Pearl.)

    The present work for a streetcar route on MLK and Grand can be migrated to putting a streetcar back on Hawthorne Blvd and the Hawthorne Bridge. This would then provide a second transfer point to downtown as well as a much needed relief to the motorist congestion on the entire length of Hawthorne.

  9. I am working on writing a review of the mall project. A couple of tidbits from it:

    *It does nothing for westside riders, who will still suffer from an illogical routing (though the Columbia/Jefferson bus connection from Goose Hollow to southern downtown/PSU has gotten better and may well get better)

    *The weave permeanently fixes (reduces) mall bus capacity. This will be even more of an issue if they plan to really use the new rail capacity.

    *Putting the trains in the current auto lane (my idea) was never really considered. Autos could share the present bus lanes during off-peak periods, parking could be added between bus stops and autos could turn in both directions, assuming MAX got a head start like it does on Morrison/Yamhill. Bus stops could be right across from MAX platforms forming mini-transit centers instead of blocks away. It would also reduce the mall closure, since the major work (track installation) would be confined to the left lane.

    *There is no need for peak-hour auto traffic. There is no room for autos, buses and MAX, it means more pollution and there is already plently of activity. Also, adding MAX trains will all lots of “eyes on the street” and activity.

    *The original CAC (where the alignment and other major issues were decided) was business-oriented and “they really weren’t public meetings” according to Phil Kalberer.

    *I don’t think there’s been a discussion on whether riders want the wider stop spacing.

  10. Jason–

    it provides 33% more trains to the Westside; that’s not “nothing.”

    Also, Jim McFarlane directly contradicts your assertion about capacity. He places that capacity at 130 bph, and that MAX does not reduce that capacity. On what do your base your statement?

  11. When South Waterfront approaches buildout, gas hits $5/gallon, MAX goes to Vancouver, Milwaukie and Clackamas TC, and Nike decides to relocate onto 10 acres in the CEID, the old I-5 freeway and the ugly Marquam Bridge will come out and Eastside Streetcar will be upgraded to handle N/S MAX trains.

  12. “Michael Says:
    Running the Yellow line all the way to Milwaukie via MLK and Grand instead of via downtown makes for a sensible N/S route. Further, it can answer the same needs of the proposed streetcar route on those streets.”

    I’ve mentioned that months ago, I’m glad I’m not the only one that realized this obvious fix to this entire process.

    Running light rail down MLK and on to Milwaukee would be FAR FAR more useful than screwing around with the bus mall. the highest priority for downtown isn’t features right now anyway, it’s retaining and increasing the numbers of commercial businesses instead of the negative business environment that currently exists. If the businesses continue to leave (which only continues and appears to be increasing) because of cost of operations, there eventually won’t be anyone to ride the trains downtown because everyone will be working & living in Hillsboro, Beaverton, Lake Oswego, Gresham… you get the point.

    I’m still not really sure why it’s such a huge priority to get trains to go thru downtown either… they’re insanely slow.

    Literally there would be probably a 10-20% increase in ridership if they had quicker times thru downtown… Everyone I work with currently, about 20 people, everyone drives to work in Beaverton from S & N Portland… they don’t take the MAX for two reasons, it’s not timely enough for them to go thru downtown. To just add more trains, I’m sure they’ll have ridership but the biggest growth areas (i.e. not downtown) for jobs is on the west and east end of the MAX… and there isn’t a reason in the world for those people to take the MAX unless they’re just flat broke…

  13. torridjoe –

    While I do not fully agree with Jason’s views on this project, he is correct about capacity.

    The 130bph figure after rail goes on the mall is lower than the current maximum bus capacity of the mall. The confusing part is that we are not currently using the full capacity. We are using less than 130. So MAX on the mall will not reduce capacity below what we are currently using, but it will reduce the theoretical maximum future bus capacity.

    But, when looking at the transit mall, I think we need to view it in terms of passenger capacity, not bus capacity. A full-length MAX train can carry the equivalent of more than 4 buses. When the green line opens, there will be 8 to 10 trains per hour per direction (plus an additional circulator train) on the mall, which can be viewed as 32 to 40 buses of _theoretical_ capacity, probably like 16 to 20 in the real world.

    No, as to Jason’s specific point about wanting to run MAX down the left side of the street and ban cars from the mall (at least during peak hours), there isn’t much that prevents us from doing that in the future!

    If the mall truly does become 100% utilized by bus and MAX, a 2nd non-weaving MAX track can be added in the left lane. Construction and utility relocation could be done in such a way that the mall would not need to be shut down, since you’d be dealing with only one side of the street.

    – Bob R.

  14. It makes a lot of sense to me sending the yellow line down MLK, as I’ve been worried that the rail network is starting to become too radial. The speed for through passengers will be much better this way. But then it does seem inconvenient that N Portland riders will have to transfer to go downtown. However, trains headed downtown go by the Rose Quarter station so often, especially after the Green Line gets running, that you wouldn’t have to wait very long to transfer. The streetcar across the Hawthorne bridge should be part of this plan to accommodate riders from Milwaukie going downtown. We could use the money we save from the Mall project to do it. Although, the headways will have to be really short otherwise it’ll get swamped with all the MAX riders.

    What happens to the plan for the streetcar down MLK? Does it get scrapped, or does it just run on the same tracks? It makes a lot of sense to have a loop through the central city.

    If we’re serious about high-capacity transit of any kind on MLK we need to make that area walkable (the same goes for Broadway/Weidler). Right now there are four (?) very wide lanes of one way traffic that moves too fast down long blocks, making it a hostile environment for pedestrians. Crossing the street is dangerous. One idea would be to return the couplet to two-way traffic and put the tracks in a wide median, leaving room for one lane on either side as well as a bike lane.

  15. After rereading the thread I noticed that Jim’s original statement suggested using Water Ave rather than MLK, which previous commenters and I have assumed. I would suggest that the alignment be a little more inland than Water Ave so it’ll serve a greater area. If MLK proves too difficult to tame we could use 3rd ave, although I haven’t been down there for years, so I don’t know what the conditions are. Could be a great revitalization project.

  16. Well I don’t know if anything gets done on the Eastside (anything major at least) without a solution for I5.

    As everyone knows this is a big, expensive problem…

    But I think it is to the city’s advantage to create attractive, convenient work/live space all along the eastside portion of the river. The CEID and further inland zones are severely underutilized.

    A real solution would create the oppurtunity to promote hundreds of acres of new mixed use development including creative space, light industrial, condos, retail, etc. The whole central eastside would compliment downtown and the Pearl, and provide Portland with almost double the space for development in the Center City (including industrial space which is currently absent). That alone justifies an I5 solution, possibly even financially.

    Plus it would be possible to create a tramsport node for high speed rail, streetcars and Max… And a new waterfront park. It seems like the logical next step I think after SoWa…

  17. The CEID is deathly afraid of turning into the next Pearl District. And I think they have a point, we need to maintain an employment area (for things other than office jobs) in the central city. That fear is part of what’s slowing redevelopment in the area, so we need to think about a new formulation (high-density non-office employment?).

  18. Chris,
    what does Measure 37 do to industrial sanctuary zoning? Is it at risk? Should we even keep it in the CEID? Lots of businesses that used to be in the Pearl have already relocated there.
    I-5 is really what protects the industrial uses there, and keeps the area funky, gritty, etc., which I rather like. I-5 and the bridge approaches.
    I onced proposed an eastside express bus from Clackamas county with limited stops at employment areas including Inner SE, CEID, Lloyd, Lower Albina and Swan Island. Maybe that is where you start, then look at a MAX line later.
    The Mall rehab is driven in part by downtown businesses who see MAX as a more attractive transit option than buses…look at Yamhill/Morrison vs 5th/6th Avenue for ambience, etc. The Mall is showing its age, and the Pearl is grabbing retail from the core.
    As for Fools Paradise, when you look at Portland you see a lot of employment in the Central City; not too many shuttered factories and abandoned industrial sites….who wants to work anyhow?
    Oops, back to work!

  19. If large numbers of commuters are going to use light rail instead of freeways, light rail has to operate more like a metro system rather than a streetcar. The beauty of light rail is that it has this flexibility.

    The reason I suggested Water Avenue for an eastside light rail corridor is that it is the most direct route between OMSI and the Rose Quarter and the trains could run faster, mostly on separated right of way. Two level intermediate stations located under the Hawthorne, Morrison and Burnside Bridgeheads allow for covered escalator transfers to and from buses and streetcars on the bridges.

    Over time, land use around these stations would change to more intensive use, but that would be a result of their presence not the reason for them.

    An eastside streetcar loop crossing the Hawthorne Bridge and running on MLK and Grand Ave.would compliment the light rail not compete with it.

  20. Bob is correct to point out that the MAX-caused reducing of bus capacity may not be a big issue in the short term. The point is that if, for some reason, they want to run higher bus volumes, like they historically did, and/or have more trains, they will not be able to do so.

    Rightly or wrongly, I have been annoyed when people argue that MAX will increase mall capacity. While that may be technically correct, many buses will still be needed since MAX doesn’t go everywhere. The Green Line & shuttles will replace few, if any, buses on the mall though a Milwaukie MAX line would. Oh, and is this deja vu–South/North all over again?

    Overall, getting from North Portland to SE is one of the reasons a tunnel with limited stops downtown would be best, albeit maybe financially unfeasible. While you would have to cross the river twice, the added time would be negligible.

    BTW, I must commend him for speaking out on the shelters and other issues.

  21. Regarding the M37 question, it only comes into play to the extent that industrial zoning replaced something more permissive AFTER the current owners bought their properties. I don’t think this can be answered with a thorough review of the zone code history and the property purchase records.

    So I really have no idea, but my guess is that it’s not a big deal.

  22. Yes! Yes! Yes!

    Excellent suggestion on the align for MAX South along SE Water Ave.. Save some money on the number of bridges built over the Willamette. Faster times from Hayden Island to Milwaukie. The money saved on the Willamette Crossing is spend getting to Hayden Island (closer to WA!!!).

    Best of all, we start down the path to the transit center close to the Rose Quarter and OCC that I call “Trails End Transit Station”. Having stops at Burnside, Morrison, Hawthrone, and finally at Powell will link up with all current eastside bus lines (future streetcar lines out to 39th?) for great access going anywhere east or west.

    Streetcar on MLK handle the higher density local demand once the five/ten story buildings start filling in.

    A true High Speed Rail Corridor on the Eastbank will not be available until we realize that the Eastbank Freeway is on property that wasn’t made for the automobile.

    Tri-Met seems to think that all MAX line must end up in Downtown Portland. But all the planning I have seen speaks to a Center City core area that should include South Waterfront; NW Portland; Lloyd Center/Rose Quarter; and the CEID. Why is building more bridges over the river always the answer? Why aren’t we not thinking about tunnels at some point for a subway concept and to replace that obsolete Interstate Freeway Building know as the Marquam Bridge.

    Ray Whitford

  23. Chris’ comments regarding the CEID are important to this discussion.

    The way I see it, we need to retain the industrial flavor of the CEID and promote even more light industrial development in this zone. Why? First off, we should aim to retain the heritage of the district and respect the current atmosphere of the area. But we also need to have a centrally located employment center that supports many different types of jobs. It will be especially important in he next few decades as local production/distribution/manufacturing becomes an integral part of the city state concept. Local local local.

    Portland and other successful 21st century cities will probably be self-supporting in many respects. Energy prices and many other factors will likely interfere with the current model of globalisation.

    A new and improved CEID (with zoning to protect industrial use) would promote local light industry, allow for creative spaces (studios, artists hqs, workshops, small manufacturing centers etc) and also…good transit for the zone and region. As well as parks, living spaces and a reconnected riverfront!

    If we can modify I5 *and* protect the CEID, while at the same time updating the zone for modern uses Portland may be able to claim another national first: a transit_friendly, planned industrial live/work zone…

  24. Nathan:

    right. however, the CEID is ridiculously low density, particularly in the housing area. From the Willamette until around 12th, its pretty much a dead zone for large areas of land…

    So what do we do? Beam development had a proposal in their Burnside Bridgehead plan to include truck loading & industrial uses on the bottom floors & basements of their buildings that face the western area of the site, while the eastern part – which was higher eleveation – was pedestrian oriented, retail and residential.

    This would work nicely. I also have a friend who lives around Grand and Ash in a loft, and there are many artists infiltrating the area due to the low rents and undeveloped nature of the place.

    Seems like we’re torn of wanting the area to be more than it is now… yet it might lose its character by development itself.
    Perhaps slow and steady wins the race?

  25. As long as I-5 is there and the UPRR, the changes in Central Eastside will be gradual. But as South Waterfront and the Pearl build out, CE becomes the last close-in area available for redevelopment. And its potential is huge; its an area almost the same size as Downtown. The land under I-5 is probably some of the most valuable land in the region, with views of Mt Hood to the east and Downtown to the west.
    Check out the Waterfront for People website (not sure the precise address) for more information.

  26. “The land under I-5 is probably some of the most valuable land in the region, with views of Mt Hood to the east and Downtown to the west.”

    Then, they can help figure out a way that other Portland neighborhoods can benefit from Federal tax money, and not just their own! Of course, I would probably be for it if I owned a couple of blocks next to the River. This issue would require much broader support, which simply isn’t there. So CEID, grovel! I know the argument of land (presently covered by I-5) reverting to local authority.

  27. There are lots of different land owners in the CEID, but the biggest is ODOT! Just their land would probably pay for half of a tunnel project.
    This is not rocket science…cities all over the world do this, even Duluth, Minn. got it done.
    I want the river back…with a meadow and a beach for the citizens of east Portland; what a view!

  28. The east bank esplanade path was remarkable in that it’s potential loveliness was/is totally wrecked by the adjacent freeway. What on earth was Vera thinking? I used to think that it was a terrible waste of money. The path is noisy and the air dirty. Or perhaps, was she was planting the seed of a great idea?

  29. Vera did what she could with the money and time she had available. The city didn’t have the political will to move the freeway at that time.

    But your point is well taken, too plant the seed of actually reclaiming the Eastbank of the Willamette River for something other than traffic is a start.


  30. I really like the idea of sending the Yellow line down through the east side, but the biggest advantage that I see to the Mall alignment is hooking Union Station into the MAX grid. This will be really beneficial as train service becomes more popular and future high speed rail. I realize that many people have proposed an HSR station on the East side, but that’s a very long way off and we are using Union Station now. What’s the point of taking the train into the city and not being able to go anywhere?

    I’m struggling to decide which is a better solution. Could we build the Mall alignment now and then when we get service to Milwaukie create a shortcut through the east side, maybe designated a different color?

  31. Could we build the Mall alignment now and then when we get service to Milwaukie create a shortcut through the east side, maybe designated a different color?

    Yes, we could, there is no engineering reason why not, and it wouldn’t be very costly to do it after the other already-planned extensions are added.

    Perhaps by then people will have a better idea anyway of how to handle a new HSR hub and an I-5 alignment alternative.

    Done properly, a direct N-S eastside line could avoid some of the current bottlenecks.

    – Bob R.

  32. I read somewhere that Metro is taking another look at the proposed Caruthers crossing for the Milwaukie MAX line.
    A big reason to do the Mall alignment is PSU which, a major destination, but now I’m thinking that MAX needs to get to South Waterfront and the Tram in order to serve OHSU as well with its 10K employees. That would move the Milwaukie MAX line crossing further south, maybe in line with Holgate. So what happens to OMSI, West Clinton, Brooklyn, etc? I think these close in destinations would be better served by Streetcar, which could extend south via 11th & 12th, maybe all the way to Sellwood on Milwaukie Avenue. Streetcar would get back across the River on the Hawthorne Bridge; the Milwaukie MAX line would follow McLaughlin from about Holgate south as per the current prefered alignment.

  33. Lenny, in fact I just posted about the process and politics around that.

    For Streetcar there’s a tradeoff involved. It would make the trip time from the Central Eastside to PSU and downtown a lot longer.

  34. Chris,
    on a little map I have a route via Hawthorne, 1st Ave and Harrison would be a tad shorter to PSU and would get you quicker to within walking distance of the “civic center.” And there could be an OMSI stop on Clay right before it heads onto the Bridge.

  35. The eastside project has looked at the contingency of coming back over the Hawthorne. We could go to OMSI (via MLK and an overpass over the UP line) and then come back to the Hawthorne on Water Ave.

  36. I’ve seen a couple of references to “waterfront for the people” on this thread but I can’t find the address. Can anyone help me out?

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